At the end of September, the General Assembly of the United Nations held a special event on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight MDGs were launched in 2000 in order to provide a framework for the international community to eradicate poverty, ranging in thematic areas from poverty and hunger, education, health, the environment and targets for international cooperation. Although progress has been made, this has not been universal and many countries will fall short of reaching the targets set. While the international community has not thrown in the towel, debate among governments at the national and international level, as well as within civil society, is already well underway to consider what should replace the MDG framework come its deadline in 2015.
It was within this context that ATD Fourth World launched a participatory research project to bring to this debate the experience and knowledge of people living in extreme poverty. Across twelve countries and involving over 2000 people, a working paper resulting from the project was launched at an international seminar in June 2013.
So how does the current status of the debate at the international level concur with the findings that have come directly from people living in extreme poverty? The Outcome Document that was adopted at the special event states that a future development framework should “promote peace and security, democratic governance, the rule of law, gender equality and human rights for all.” and reaffirms the “central imperative of poverty eradication, commitment to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.”
Certainly the promotion of human rights is welcomed by people living in poverty. Participants at one of the seminars held during the project in Mauritius stated that “all human rights must be implemented” to enable the inclusion of people in extreme poverty in society. Participants in Brazil spoke of the need to, “think together and keep uniting as colleagues in order to have our rights respected.” But promotion is not enough, it is, as the Mauritian colleagues stressed, implementation that is essential because it is the essential means to ensure what many people in poverty spoke about over and over again in the research: dignity. This can be best encompassed by a statement from a Brazilian participant: “Dignity (…) it should be a compass to show us the way.”
Within a national context, ATD Fourth World in Bolivia has worked closely with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to produce a series of documentaries which reveal the experience and knowledge of people living in extreme poverty. One such documentary is entitled “Voces de Dignidad” (Voices of Dignity) and demonstrates the discrimination that people in poverty face, particularly in their quest for decent work.
Over the course of the next two years, in the run up to the adoption of the next development framework in September 2015, ATD Fourth World will continue to make known the knowledge that the most vulnerable in our societies have produced. This is vital in order to provide to those who represented us at the UN a clear picture of what people in extreme poverty, who also belong to the “we, the peoples of the United Nations”, know to be essential in creating a sustainable development that leaves no one behind.
I was recently invited by the ATD Fourth World team in Haiti to spend a week with them to know more about the work they are doing and get to know the active members of ATD Fourth World in the country. I had not traveled to Haiti before. Yet it is a country that we cannot help having images and visions of in our minds given the media exposure it receives – due to political unrest and since 2010 due to the devastating earthquake.
My flight to Port-au-Prince was through Miami. Talking to people at the long immigration and security queues, many of them had been to Haiti as US Armed Forces personnel. “Watch out for the mosquitoes,” was the most common advice shared.
What I was not prepared for was the sight that met me at the departure gate: groups of teenage Americans, dressed in their shorts and branded sneakers, iPhones and tablets in hand and speakers on ears. Along with accompanying adults, they were off to Haiti during the summer break as part of their church group. I sat next to one of the adults on the plane, who was part of a church running an orphanage. Another I spoke to was part of a San Franciscan church group building a school with a local pastor in the Haitian countryside. For their month in the country, they were bringing all their food provisions with them.
There has been a lot of debate over the influx of foreign aid organisations and churches coming to Haiti since the earthquake. Much of that is very critical, due to its short-termism and it being driven by outside agendas rather than in partnership with local people. Another effect is its influence on the need for Haitians to speak English to find work. It was revealing that a number of the young Haitians who are involved in projects with ATD Fourth World speak English. One works with a US church group, others see learning English as a vital skill in order to find work with such groups who require interpreters. Of course, there is a lot of positive to be gained from learning another language: it is rather the hegemony of the English language that raises a number of questions.
Leaving Haiti after a fascinating week which enabled me to begin learning about Haiti and about the work ATD Fourth World is doing there, the plane was once again full of young Americans heading home. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to speak to any of them. It is a concern what they bring to such a complex situation in the country given their very young age and short amount of time they spend there. On the other hand, it would be interesting to know what drives them to give up their comfort for a month or so and go to a place they know very little about.
In ATD Fourth World we speak a lot of mobilising young people’ passion for a fairer world by offering them a space in which they can develop a commitment alongside people living in extreme poverty. What will become of the commitment of these youngsters who head to Haiti every summer in 5 or 10 years time? Or the thousands of young Brits who head off on “gap-years”? Can their commitment to people they know little about also be channeled into mobilising for a fairer society in their own neighbourhoods, schools, places of work? It is our task, in all our countries, to continue to mobilise young people’s enthusiasm and energy for positive change, by giving them the chance to act towards long-term change against extreme poverty.